Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Casitas Deems Mussel Threat Emergency

Randy Kurz launchs his boat into Lake Casitas on Monday. Kurtz was planning on fishing for largemouth bass. Boaters are under emergency rules at the lake since an invader species, quagga mussels, has contaminated California waterways.

By Daryl Kelley
Boat owners would have to swear under penalty of perjury that their craft had not been in a quagga mussel-contaminated lake before they enter Lake Casitas under emergency rules directors of the Casitas Municipal Water District are expected to adopt today.
And, if state and federal officials fail to act effectively to what Casitas officials see as a mussel threat to the Ojai Valley reservoir, the new regulations authorize directors to close the lake to all of the 26,000 boats that visit it each year.
“We do not want to take any chance of infecting our waters, then have to deal with the mussels later,” district general manager Steve Wickstrum said. ”We have the authority to turn boats away at the gate, and we will.”
Under new rules, boat operators would have to swear that they had not been in infected waters recently, or had done a complete scouring and drying of their vessel after being in those waters. Lake employees would attempt to verify information on the boat owners’ declarations through inspections.
A Casitas staff member was recently trained in San Diego on how to make sure a boat is “completely dry,” including its bait storage bin and engine area, so the tiny mussel will not be able to migrate into Lake Casitas, Wickstrum said.
“This matter is not going to go away, so these new rules will become permanent,” Wickstrum said. The district is in the process of contacting all of the fishing groups that frequent the lake and hold tournaments there. Several are set for January, February and March.
“We’re really trying to raise awareness to this threat,” Wickstrum said. “And (fishing) clubs are starting to adopt policies to help us. They’re cleaning their boats and drying them off before they go to other lakes.”
The quagga mussel, a pernicious and prolific mollusk that overwhelms freshwater lakes like Lake Casitas, poses such a threat to fisheries and waterworks that the state enacted an emergency law in October to allow lakes to be closed to boaters altogether and contaminated boats to be seized.
In recent weeks, Casitas officials have met with state and federal officials to try to heighten awareness of the problem and force an effective response, said board President Russ Baggerly. They have met with staffers from the offices of Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Assembly members Audra Strickland and Pedro Nava, whose districts include or are adjacent to the lake.
Casitas officials have also met with Michael Jackson, area manager for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, on the problem and are attempting to meet with state Department of Fish and Game officials.
They’re asking state and federal officials to implement a system that identifies boats that have been in infested waters in a computer database and with non-removable stickers, so officials at other lakes can keep those boats out or make sure they have been cleared of mussels.
“If the state and federal agencies don’t get their act together, we’ll now have the authority to close down the lake to private boating,” Baggerly said.
The organism eats plankton that fish need to live, and it attaches to every hard surface such as the dam and pumps and filters and spillways, he said. “It could cause such damage we couldn’t afford to fix it.”
Baggerly said the need to act is urgent, because the mussel, a native of Russia that was transported to the Great Lakes by ships two decades ago, was found in Lake Mead and Lake Havasu in January. It has since been discovered by dive teams in six lakes in Riverside and San Diego counties that are also part of the Colorado River distribution system. Lake Wolford near Escondido has been closed to public boaters.
A single boat entering Lake Casitas after fishing in an infested lake could bring the mussel here, Baggerly said. Quagga mussels have been found in concentrations of 30,000 to 50,000 per square foot, officials said, clogging water treatment and distribution systems to such an extent that they can hardly function.
Baggerly said that since 87 percent of boaters who use Lake Casitas come from outside this area, “… we are overexposed to this infestation. It’s only a few hours away.”
The state is already keenly aware of the problem.
Indeed, authorities reacted immediately after the quagga mussel was found in Lake Mead in Nevada on Jan. 6, forming a task force to identify the scope of the problem and attempt to halt the mollusk’s migration.
Since then, state officials have hosted education programs for water officials, biologists and game wardens intended to raise red flags about the seriousness of the infestation.
Quagga mussel larvae can be killed with water heated to 140 degrees or with an acid mixture sprayed onto boats. Casitas has asked for such decontamination kits.
The quagga mussel, a native of eastern Europe and Russia, found its way to the Great Lakes in the United States in 1988 and then was discovered early this year in a series of lakes and streams in the Colorado River watershed that feeds into Southern California.
According to the Department of Fish and Game, the mussels have been found in San Vicente Reservoir, Lake Murray Reservoir, Lower Otay Reservoir, and Lake Dixon in San Diego County, and Lake Skinner and Lake Mathews in Riverside County. Although they range from microscopic to the size of a fingernail, the mussels are prolific breeders and attach themselves to hard and soft surfaces, such as boats and aquatic plants. The mussels damage boats by blocking engine cooling, jamming steering equipment and increasing drag and destroying paint, the state release said.
They also wreak havoc with the environment, disrupting the natural food chain and releasing toxins that affect other species. Spread of the quagga could result in millions of dollars in damage to water transport facilities, state officials say.
Thus far, the mussels have not been found in California’s State Water Project, which draws its water from Northern California watersheds.
A multi-agency task force that includes the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Boating and Waterways, the Department of Water Resources and California State Parks has responded with surface and underwater inspectors to determine the extent of the quagga threat. For more information on the quagga mussel response, visit the DFG Web site at www.dfg.ca.gov/invasives/quaggamussel.
A public toll-free number, 1-(866) 440-9530, has been established for boaters and anyone involved with activities on lakes and rivers seeking information on the mussels.

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